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The Incomplete (English) Sentence Posted by on Jul 6, 2017 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary

How can it be wrong, if it sounds so right?

One of the first things you learn about constructing sentences in English is the very narrow definition of a complete sentence. A sentence must consist of

  • A capital letter at the beginning
  • A punctuation mark as a stopping point
  • The main clause, consisting of an independent subject and verb containing a complete thought

You should always be encouraged to write proper, complete sentences at all times. Your essays and correspondence should always be formal, and follow accepted grammatical rules and procedures. There are times, however, when you may want to break the rules.


A sentence can have many clauses, but it must always have a main clause to be a complete sentence. Dependent clauses also have at least one subject and verb, but they don’t have the formal structure to hold a complete thought. Instead, the independent clauses are implied.

Keisha sat down and turned on the television.

See? Complete sentence.

Those last two phrases, or rather fragments of phrases above, are incomplete sentences. In each case, the subject and verb are missing from the thought. Nevertheless, you probably understood the intent behind those fragments, and that is another example of why the English language can be a maddening beast. If the rules are so specific, why is it so easy to break them and get away with it? The answer has something to do with your mode of communication.

Let’s go back. In the first fragment, see is used as a synonym for the word understand. “See?” is then formed as a question, with the verb do and the subject you missing but implied. In proper and formal English, the question should be “Do you see?”. However, English speakers fully understand the simple question, “See?” Some similar examples would be

  • Get it?
  • Know what I mean?
  • Understand?
  • Follow me?

Native English speakers use fragments of sentences all the time, eliminating important words but, in the context of the order in which the sentences flow, the missing words are implied.

In the second case, “Complete sentence.” is clearly a fragment, even though it begins with a capital letter and concludes with a period. Nevertheless, you probably understood that I was saying, “That is a complete sentence.” Again, this is an example of understanding that the missing words are implied to be there.

Subordinating Conjunctions

Most dependent clauses, and therefore most incomplete sentences, begin with subordinating conjunctions, such as if, when, whether, before, after, unless, instead, although, even, because, as, and since. Consider this exchange between two people:

“Strawberry has always been my favorite ice cream flavor.”

“Since when?”

“Since I was a kid.”

It would be redundant to repeat all the words necessary to turn those replies into complete sentences.

“Since when has strawberry been your favorite ice cream flavor?”

“Strawberry has been my favorite ice cream flavor since I was a kid.”

Another example might be:

“Why are you angry?”

“Because you lied.”

The reply “Because you lied.” looks like a complete sentence, but it isn’t. A complete, and formal response would be, “I’m angry because you lied.” However, that’s not how people talk. We speak in a natural and casual manner. And that is at the heart of why the use of incomplete sentences in English is commonly accepted.

Casual speech will almost always contain incomplete sentences, fragments, and dependent clauses. Playwrights and authors of fiction strive to capture authenticity in their work, and will fill pages with incomplete sentences to make their characters sound as natural as possible. If an essayist has established an informal, casual voice as a writer, such as in a blog or memoir, you may also find frequent use of incomplete sentences and fragmented phrases.

What all good writers need to understand, though, is that you must know the rules of formal sentence construction before you can appreciate the times when you can stray outside the laws of what is considered proper English.

Photo by Kate Ter Harr on Flickr

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